RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Larson won the regular-season finale Saturday at Richmond Raceway. At least for now.
Nothing against Larson, but after what happened in the past week, it’s hard to be sure of anything in NASCAR these days. He’ll have to wait until Tuesday, when his car goes through an additional inspection at NASCAR’s research and development center, before he can be sure of the victory.
That’s the circus of NASCAR. Maybe someone had to replace Ringling Bros. after it ceased operations and now NASCAR is making its play.
In a span of less than four days, NASCAR made news by penalizing the winner of both of the races at Darlington, having an ambulance nearly cost a driver a playoff spot and then throwing a caution with three laps remaining caused by a car about 15 laps down after it brushed the wall.
At a time when the talk should be about how Jimmie Johnson is vying for his eighth title (remember, he won three times this year despite recent struggles) and NASCAR is talking about a potential first-time champion in Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson, the focus isn’t about the racing. It’s about what in the world is going on in NASCAR, which announced Wednesday — about 64 hours after the Darlington race was over — that Denny Hamlin‘s car had failed inspection and he wouldn’t have the benefit of the five playoff points from that win.
Playoff points. That’s another item of conversation, something that needs explaining, as they are new this year. NASCAR did a good job in creating a points system that gives drivers incentive to race hard throughout races and throughout the season. It didn’t do a good job in keeping it simple.
Drivers earn playoff points — one point for a “stage” win and five points for a race win, and then more points for those who finish in the top 10 in the regular-season standings. It makes every moment in the race a pivotal moment.
So that’s why it was a big deal when NASCAR threw the caution Saturday night when Derrike Cope scraped the wall with just a few laps left.
“I just think that’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he’s running and just riding around there basically just making laps,” said Truex, who was leading handily at the time. “It’s pretty dumb.”
That caution allowed Larson, who had a better short-run car, to win the race after coming off pit road ahead of Truex. Larson would have been 30 playoff points behind Truex to open the playoffs, but instead sits second to him at just 20 points behind. That could be the difference in the championship.
“I’ve got the same amount of wins as him, but [Truex] should have probably have like 10 or 12 wins if things would go his way more often,” Larson said. “But he’s been the class of the field all year, and the Toyotas in general have been really strong here the past few months. But I look at it as we all just have to work harder.”
Truex was the most unhappy regular-season champion ever. He has toiled in this sport for more than a decade and every win is key.
“Tonight sucks, plain and simple, just the way it ended up,” Truex said.
Even Matt Kenseth was frustrated when he should have been thankful. He lost a chance to guarantee himself a playoff spot when he ran into the back of another car when entering pit road with 143 laps remaining.
Why did he run into the back of the car? Because an ambulance had stopped right at the entrance to the pits.
On the one hand, mistakes happen. But a team makes a mistake and a piece isn’t as flush as it should be and it costs the team five playoff points, $50,000 and an unlimited amount of grief (Denny Hamlin was booed at his home track Saturday). A NASCAR-directed ambulance makes a mistake and it nearly costs Kenseth a playoff spot — and it did ruin the chances for Clint Bowyer of any hope of an upset — and it’s almost like, “Oh, sorry, we’ll look into it.”
NASCAR should come out and beg the fans for their forgiveness for the embarrassing miscue. If NASCAR wants to remain credible and wants to stem the tide of lackluster ratings and attendance challenges in certain markets, it can’t have such ridiculousness.
The NASCAR officials have run plenty of races. They are allowed to make mistakes, such as early in the Richmond race when a huge puff of smoke out of Kenseth’s car resulted in a caution even though he had locked his brakes only briefly.
NASCAR’s track record isn’t one of having ambulances stop at the entrance of pit road. But to have it happen was downright pitiful, and NASCAR can only hope that people were watching their favorite college football team at that moment.
When NASCAR created this playoff format, one of the first things that came to mind was that its actions, its calls, would come under greater scrutiny. When a championship was decided by a 26-race regular season in which weekly finishes didn’t matter much as long as a driver won, and a 10-race playoff determined the champion, a driver could overcome a NASCAR ruling here or there.
But not with this new system. Every NASCAR call can have critical impact on the championship. Thankfully, with the Larson win, Kenseth still made the playoffs and NASCAR didn’t have to consider whether it should add him as an exception.
Instead of talking about a great rally to the finish by a potentially win-and-in driver, the talk this weekend around NASCAR was, on Friday, whether the whole garage is cheating up its cars and, on Saturday, whether an ambulance driver has a clue.
NASCAR heads to Chicagoland Speedway next week to open the playoffs. It signifies another failed NASCAR experiment to try to generate excitement in a big city with the playoff opener.
Next year, NASCAR will open the playoffs in Las Vegas after a regular-season finale at Indianapolis instead of Richmond.
Change is in the air. NASCAR needs to change the narrative. It needs to find a way to find the areas in which teams are pushing the envelope and snip it prerace rather than three days later. It needs to find a way to educate fans about the confusing playoff system, as fans continue to ask questions about playoff points (yes, drivers earn them through the playoffs).
And NASCAR needs to be perfect when officiating races. Because if people don’t have trust in the sport and don’t have faith in the competition and the playing field, all the “young gun” promotion — Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon are among those in the playoffs — in the world won’t be enough to make people want to watch.